How are we to respond to acts of terrorism?

We do not know what lies ahead, but putting our faith in God's love is our only real hope for change.

Experiencing Resurrection at Ground Zero

St. Paul's Chapel Responds with Courage and Love

When confronted with devastation as overwhelmingly horrific as that of Ground Zero, where the World Trade Center once stood, my initial response was despair. How could human beings inflict such misery on one another, and do so while inciting the name of God?

I used to work in the World Financial Center, a large office complex literally across the street from the World Trade Center. Every day I would get off the subway at the Fulton Street stop, climb the steps into the light, and look up at the World Trade Center looming above me. I would get a charge walking across the mall, between the twin towers to my office. That subway stop is closed now; its entrance is where a line forms for the public viewing platform overlooking the gigantic crater at Ground Zero, commonly known as "the pit."

The viewing platform is adjacent to St. Paul's Chapel. President George Washington was one of the worshippers at St. Paul's. Erected in 1766, it is the oldest public building in Manhattan in continuous operation. St. Paul's is part of Trinity Wall Street—a vital Episcopal church just a few blocks to the south, on the edge of Ground Zero—and had been the site of some of Trinity's alternative worship services for urban youth. My favorite was the "hip hop mass." The highly successful services came to an abrupt halt on 9/11. On September 12, 2001, St. Paul's became the relief center for the recovery workers at Ground Zero—a refuge for the firemen, policemen, and emergency workers who first saved lives and now search for decaying body parts amidst the rubble.

St. Paul's is reserved strictly for the recovery squads. Their work continues twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, and St. Paul's is open for them around the clock. As many as eighty people sleep there at night. High quality food is served by some of New York's' top restaurateurs, headed by food service captain Martin Cowart, formerly of the Basset Café. The chapel offers a masseuse and music performed by volunteers from the Julliard School, among others. Its walls are covered with handmade drawings, letters, and tributes of encouragement from school children from all over the world. Services and communion (the holy Eucharist) are held daily.

I was invited to visit St. Paul's by Fred Burnham, the well-respected head of the Trinity Institute. In addition to his "day job" as a leading theologian, Fred spends four nights a week at St. Paul's as a volunteer. Unbeknownst to Fred, my grandfather died on the same day I saw "the pit" for the first time. Navigating my way through the somber crowd waiting to climb up to the viewing platform, I entered St. Paul's with a heavy heart. While my experience pales in comparison to so many affected by 9/11, the timing of my visit made the reality of death particularly poignant. Unexpectedly my spirits lifted at the sight of the numerous cheerful volunteers ministering to the rescue workers inside the church. Everyone there—the priests, the volunteers, and the recovery workers—was joyful. Joy is not what I had expected to see.

St. Paul's has literally kept some of these workers alive. One told a reporter that the chapel was the only thing that had kept him from putting a bullet in his head. Every day was spent groping for body parts in the pit, he explained, but then…"I get to come here."

Just before I left, Fred and the Rev. Lyndon Harris, the associate in charge of St. Paul's, took me to the second floor balcony where there is a side room with a window. The view overlooks a tree-covered cemetery at the back of the church. The cemetery abuts the massive 20-acre pit where the World Trade Center once stood. The ancient trees protected St. Paul's from the blast when the towers collapsed. Looking out the window, I saw the devastation of the pit in the distance, the graves below, and new green leaves budding on the ravaged trees rising to sky. In one corner of the cemetery, a single tree was covered with flowers in bloom. Looking out at the scene below, remembering my grandfather, and contemplating the ministries taking place around me, I could only think about the resurrection. Two thousand years ago, God turned evil on its head and used it for his purposes. Today, He is doing the same thing at Ground Zero through his followers at Trinity and St. Paul's, who are quietly doing good works in his name.

—Nick Lewis
To view photographs and read more about the Ground Zero ministry, visit the W eb site of Saint Paul's Chapel